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The Ghosts of Celilo

Playwright Marv Ross and Director Greg Tamblyn use Lake Oswego talent in a production opening Friday at the Newmark Theatre that brings to life events from the historical silencing of the once-mighty Celilo Falls
by: Vern Uyetake, Marissa Ryder, far left, plays the part of Irene, the daughter of a boarding school administrator. A number of Native American children from various parts of the Pacific Northwest play the part of the school’s students.

Question: What do famed pop music writer Marv Ross, former Lake Oswego High School Windjammer Marissa Ryder and Native American tribal leader Thomas Morning Owl have in common?

Answer: One enormous, roaring waterfall.

In 'The Ghosts of Celilo,' a new groundbreaking musical play, they tell its story in song and words. Written primarily by Ross, 'Ghosts' is based on true events that happened near Celilo Falls when the federal government closed the floodgates of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

In a short time, the force of the Columbia River turned upon itself, silencing the once-roaring falls and filling the sacred Native American fishing site below.

In observation of that day 50 years later, 'The Ghosts of Celilo' premieres Friday at the Newmark Theater in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. The 11-show production runs Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 14.

Those involved in its creation hope the play - which weaves culture, history and viewpoints on natural resources - will educate the audience about Celilo Falls' significance and the ongoing impact of its demise.

'I've driven by Celilo a bunch of times. I didn't know what used to be there,' said director Greg Tamblyn, of Lake Oswego. 'I can't even imagine what it truly was … It makes me think about the impact of what we think progress is and how it affects people who are still struggling there.'

'The Ghosts of Celilo' features a professionally designed set, period costumes and up to 100 people involved in its creation, from Native American child actors to a live band. The production is supported by Youth Resources, Inc. - a non-profit group founded by Lake Oswegans Duncan and Cindy Campbell.

'The play brings to light children's issues as they apply to diversity, racism and self-esteem - subjects that are critical to the mission of Youth Resources, Inc.,' the group's Web site said.

''The Ghosts of Celilo' weaves a bittersweet love story within a mystery and features a haunting score of Native American music coupled with traditional musical theater numbers.

Native actors, who were selected during a search across the Pacific Northwest, perform some of the songs. The opportunity for Native American youth to participate in a professional play is rare, Tamblyn said.

'This is big for them,' Tamblyn said about the 10 Native kids in the show. 'It's not like they're coming in to be in 'Annie.' This show is really about them.'

The play tells the story of two Native American boys, Chokey Jim and Train, who are kidnapped and taken to a government boarding school. There, they are befriended by Irene (played by LOHS graduate Marissa Ryder) the white daughter of the school administrator.

The three make a daring escape so that Chokey can catch his ceremonial first salmon before Celilo Falls is buried forever. Lake Oswego resident Corey Brunish plays The Ghost of Colonel Biggs, who chases after them.

Meanwhile, the story is 'remembered' by four colorful ghosts who have been stuck on fishing platforms at the bottom of the river for 50 years.

'The gist of this story is about a boy trying to find himself and his place in the world,' Tamblyn said. 'It's about his struggle.'

Ross - former guitarist for the 80's hit band Quarterflash - began writing the script for 'The Ghosts of Celilo' nearly a decade ago.

He developed an interest in Native American music and originally thought a musical could be the best way to bring the genre to a mainstream audience. Then his idea began to develop into something much more complex - a historical story set to music.

He found his focus after interviewing Nathan Jim, Sr., a tribal elder who was kidnapped as a child from the Warm Springs Reservation and taken to a boarding school. Often run by churches and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, these schools forbade students to speak their language or practice traditional religious customs in s ong, dance or art.

With Jim's story in mind, Ross began to envision how a similar tale would unfold onstage with Celilo Falls in the background acting as a 'ticking clock.'

Because Ross was new to the trade, he enrolled in classes to learn how to hone his stage-writing skills. Professional playwrights offered their criticism and advice along the way. With help from his wife, Rindy, Ross also consulted with Native American artists Morning Owl, Arlie Neskahi and Chenoa Egawa to polish the script and make it historically accurate.

In 1998, the group began holding stage readings to gauge how the audience reacted to the play and its characters.

Soon, all of the pieces came together and the Artist Repertory Theater agreed to jump on board and support its world premiere. Thousands of dollars were raised through grants and sponsors that saw the value in its message.

In March, they presented four shows before the Umatilla tribe in Pendleton and received praise all-around, which pleased its writers.

'We all want to be careful that we don't offend anyone,' Tamblyn said. 'We want to be respectful about what the show is about. This is a piece of history and we want to make sure we don't screw it up.'

Of Newmark, Tamblyn said the facility is intimate enough and has the right technology to pull off a big-scale production like 'The Ghosts of Celilo,' which has rotating sets and ghosts that 'fly.'

The biggest challenge? Resurrecting the biggest 'ghost' of them all: Celilo Falls.

A two-minute film clip shown before the play introduces the audience to the falls, which were once the sixth largest by volume in the world.

Later, a dream sequence turns the kids' dorm room into the falls using a variety of special effects.

'It's hard to put a waterfall on stage,' Tamblyn said. 'It would be like 'Let's do a play using the Grand Canyon.''

The difference in this situation, Tambly added, is that the falls exist today only through photos and oral history. Audience members must use their imagination to visualize what once pushed through the now wide, shimmering river.

'People can't just walk up and see it anymore,' Tamblyn said.

For more information on 'The Ghosts of Celilo,' visit www.ghostsofcelilo.com . Tickets are available through Ticketmaster and the PCPA Box Office at 1111 S.W. Broadway in downtown Portland.